Adriana Colón ’20 passed out Puerto Rican flags to protestors on Cross Campus Wednesday afternoon. She approached the microphone demanding the immediate divestment of Yale endowment funds from Puerto Rican debt. This was not the first time she had made that demand.
In December 2018, Colón participated in a sit-in at the Yale Investments Office at 55 Whitney Ave., alongside members of Despierta Boricua — the Puerto Rican student organization at Yale — Fossil Free Yale, and other student groups pleading with Yale to divest from fossil fuel producers and Puerto Rican debt.
I spoke with Colón in April. We spoke about the 2018 protest, the history of conflict between the Investments Office and Yale’s student body and, of course, Puerto Rico. Colón assured me that protests would not end until their demands are met. “There will be more rallies,” Colón said in April.
Climate change has largely come as a result of extensive industrialization, a key component of modern capitalism. Climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities, according to a Nov. 2018 U.S. Federal report. Low-income communities already face higher rates of adverse medical conditions, and the report found that this would only be exacerbated by increasingly extreme climate conditions.
The report also urged politicians to work with residents of these low-income areas in solving climate issues.
There is also a clear connection between climate change and colonialism.
A report from the Grantham Centre — a branch of Sheffield University focusing on sustainability — claims that a third of arable land has been lost to erosion or pollution, thereby affecting countries with agrarian-dependent economies. Of the fifteen most agrarian-dependent countries, thirteen are African nations.
Additionally, scientists have begun to connect the dots between climate change and natural disasters, particularly hurricanes. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has written that, while the frequency of storms is expected to decrease, the intensity of storms is expected to increase over the next two to three decades.
“For the continental United States in the Atlantic Basin, models project a 45–87 percent increase in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes despite a possible decrease in the frequency of storms,” reads a post on their website.
While the southeast region of the United States has been vulnerable to these storms, Caribbean regions in particular have faced extreme storms and proportional consequences, headlined by Hurricane Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. Two years after Hurricane Maria, the exact death toll remains unknown; estimates suggest the number exceeds 3,000. A report from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimated the toll to be 5,740.
I skipped Akhil Amar’s Constitutional Law class on Wednesday afternoon. While many students were honest enough to attend the first 25 minutes of the 11:35 a.m. class, I wanted to watch the floods of people converge on Cross Campus. A flurry of students emerged from Harkness Hall. Within a few minutes, the Directed Studies students had arrived from Whitney Humanities Center. In the middle of a speech, a mass of protestors came from what could only be Science Hill.
Claire Donnellan ’23 skipped her Directed Studies philosophy lecture to participate in the protest. She said that the University is missing an opportunity to be a leader in the dialogue regarding climate change.
“[Climate change is] an issue that’s really important to me — that Yale is aware of their complicity in the climate crisis and that they should start making changes,” Donnellan said.
Donnellan was joined by fellow Directed Studies student Madison Hahamy ’23. Hahamy said that while her decision to leave class was not a protest of Directed Studies, it is important to recognize that Western society has largely contributed to environmental issues and that studying Western society is useful to fix problems surrounding climate.
“Yale teaches classes about climate change and how refugee and mass migration is affected,” Hahamy said. “But at the same time, Yale as an institution is investing in systems that are directly perpetuating causes of the things that they now have to teach about in classes. There is a contradiction there.”
Approximately 20 students from the psychology lecture Thinking walked out of a midterm exam. In an email obtained by the News, a student in the lecture circulated a petition urging their professor to reschedule the Wednesday exam.
“By striking, we acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ cannot continue and demand urgent action from those in power,” the student said in the email. “We know that there’s a PSYC midterm one Wednesday. Despite this, many of us still want to stand in solidarity with our fellow students in climate action.”
Yet, despite 85 student signatures, the midterm was not rescheduled. While a follow-up email detailed a plan to join the rally after their exam — which ended at 12:50 p.m. — a Thinking student witnessed approximately 20 protestors leave the exam.
Sarah Pillard ’21, a student in Constitutional Law, sent a similar email to students in the class.
“I have let Professor [Akhil] Amar know about this action, and I want to be clear that my intention is not at all to disrespect him. This class is important, but the climate crisis is far more urgent.”
550 people responded “going” to the Facebook event for the protest, while a report by WTNH-8 claimed that over 1,500 people attended the rally.
As the protesters began to march past the Law School, past Silliman College and towards Science Hill, they chanted, “No justice, no peace! Hey-hey, ho-ho, climate change has got to go!” The chant echoed April protests of the Yale Police Department and their involvement in the shooting of New Haven resident Stephanie Washington.
The Investments Office
Per University policy, Yale does not usually comment on its specific investments. Still, the Office does address matters of social responsibility on their website. Investments in Puerto Rican debt have come under close scrutiny in recent years.
“When Yale activism groups, as well as other state and local organizations, demanded that the University disclose all investments in Puerto Rican bonds, cancel all those held by Yale, and fire investment managers who refuse to sell or forgive the debt, the matter was referred to the [Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility],” the office’s official statement reads. “The ACIR concluded in January 2018 that divestment from Puerto Rican debt is not warranted when an investor is abiding by the applicable legal framework in a process in which the debtor’s interests are appropriately represented.”
The ACIR is a committee within the Yale Investments Office overlooking the ethics of various investment strategies. The committee is made up of Yale alumni, staff, faculty and students. Jonathan Macey, the chair of the ACIR, said in an April interview with the News that the ethical question regarding Puerto Rican debt is who should make the decision on who should handle the Puerto Rican debt crisis: the “legitimately and democratically elected officials” of Puerto Rico or activists who “unilaterally agree that they don’t want Puerto Rico to pay principal or interest on the bonds.”
Macey added there are advantages to Puerto Rico paying off its debt.
“If they want access to capital markets in the future, then paying back their debts will give them access to capital markets in the future,” Macey said in an interview with the News.
It is necessary to note that Yale does not directly invest in Puerto Rican debt. Yale’s indirect investment in Puerto Rico lies in its investments in its fifth-largest fund manager, Baupost Group, as well as four other investment groups: Fortress Investment Group, Carmel Asset Management, Cyprus Capital and Corbin Capital Partners, according to a report from The Intercept. The Intercept also revealed in 2017 that, to avoid public scrutiny, the Baupost Group had invested over $1 billion in Puerto Rican debt using two shell corporations, both called Decagon Holdings LLC.
The first shell company was created in Nevada in 2015, the second in Delaware in August 2016. Puerto Rico defaulted on their debt on July 1, 2016.
One of Fossil Free Yale’s greatest concerns centers around the Investments Office’s holdings in Antero, an American fracking company. Antero settled with the Justice Department in February 2019 over claims they had violated the Clean Water Act at 32 West Virginia sites, according to a Reuters article. Antero settled at $11.15 million: a $3.15 million penalty and $8 million for remediation.
Yale has, however, divested nearly all of its holdings in Antero. The News reported that the Yale Investments Office divested 99 percent of their holdings in Antero in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to Yale’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Thoughts: Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico faced a June 2016 suit of $2 billion in bond repayments. As a result, the U.S. passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, which prevented the U.S. territory from being sued. However, the bill required that a seven-person board be appointed tasked with the duty to negotiate with creditors on Puerto Rico’s behalf and to create a fiscal plan for Puerto Rico’s economy.
Despierta Boricua does correctly claim that the PROMESA board was not democratically elected by Puerto Ricans — rather, by the 114th Congress of the United States. Yet, recent headlines would suggest that leading democratically elected Puerto Rican politicians have themselves failed in serving Puerto Ricans.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló was ousted over the summer after leaked text messages between Rosselló and his closest allies incited popular fury and protests outside the governor’s official residence — La Fortaleza. Rosselló’s Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez was named Governor of Puerto Rico on Aug. 9. While the Puerto Rican constitution states that the Secretary of State shall assume the governorship at the removal of the Governor, Rosselló’s Secretary of State had resigned for his part in the scandal a week prior to Rosselló.
As an American and a British exceptionalist, I cannot be on a high horse. Trump is likely to be impeached. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his majority in the House of Commons and was recently deemed to have acted unconstitutionally when he suspended Parliament in an attempt to circumvent the Commons’ reluctance to allow a no-deal Brexit.
I do bring up Britain with a particular point. While I generally defend the concept of majoritarianism, there are political topics that, given the complexity of the matter, are entrusted to politicians and field experts, who dedicate their lives to their craft.
The case of Brexit and the appointment of PROMESA are clearly different. Brexit had some degree of legitimacy in the sense that elected officials allowed the referendum, while there is no democratic legitimacy in the appointment of the PROMESA. Rather, the appointment of PROMESA was clearly a colonial one. The question, then, is whether democratic legitimacy is what the situation requires. With the immense complexities of government bonds, sovereign debt and capital markets, there is certainly an argument that appointed officials may be better suited to solve the problem than elected officials.
Does this mean PROMESA is best suited to fix the problem? Time has compelled most to believe they were not. PROMESA has enacted harsh austerity measures, with burdening taxes on Puerto Rican citizens in the name of a better economic future that has not come in the three years since PROMESA’s appointment.
Would democracy be upheld if Puerto Rico’s elected officials were allowed to appoint their own economists and financial experts? That much is unclear. Yet, I do assert that a popularly elected committee to address the Puerto Rican debt crisis would not be as effective as appointed officials.
Thoughts: Yale’s Investments
My thoughts on the current state of Puerto Rican politics, however, do not reflect my opinion on Yale’s indirect investment in Puerto Rican debt and Yale’s indirect investments in fossil fuel companies. My most developed thoughts on the matter surround Puerto Rico.
My father fled from Cuba in exile in 1961. He first lived in Florida — as many Cuban immigrants did at the start of the Castro regime. Yet, he quickly found himself living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he lived until college. He seldom returned; he was soon busy with a wife and three children. His brother moved to Oklahoma, leaving only my grandfather in Puerto Rico.
Eduardo Tabio had not returned to Puerto Rico for nearly two decades before he and I went — my first time — in March of this past year. While San Juan exhibited strength and solidarity, the likes of which I had never seen in my young life, the stories I heard from locals was sobering, to say the least.
As a white-passing Cuban American living in New York, with few ties to Puerto Rico after my grandfather’s death late last year, it was easy to turn a blind eye to the woes Puerto Rico has faced since Hurricane Maria. Even the nature of my awakening — a fucking holiday trip to San Juan — reeks of privilege.
I was lucky enough only to imagine how hard it must be to not hear from family for weeks on end, as the U.S. territory struggled to maintain food supplies and healthcare products, let alone electricity and power. And while I can vaguely imagine what this may feel like, I cannot begin to comprehend how this situation feels for Yale students. I cannot fathom working hard enough to attend an Ivy League school, gaze at the university with rose-colored glasses, only to matriculate into a school that is complicit in the crippling debt crisis of your country.
While Yale works to improve the life and well-being of all its students, it is inherently contradictory to comply in the hardships of their Puerto Rican citizens.
This same logic holds true for all students who come from agrarian-dependent economies, whose countries are forced to drastically adapt to drastic weather changes.
This same logic holds true for all students, who will be forced to rehabilitate the earth once the generation before us is no longer with us. Speakers at the U.N. have argued that we have 11 years left before our environment has been irreparably damaged. Some reports are more damning, with estimates of 18 months to “save the planet.”
While climate change directly affects Yale students, Yalies should feel more than legitimate in raising concerns about endowment justice.
Yet, as in true in any debate, both sides must be taken into account. I immediately think of an opinion piece published in the News, defending David Swensen and the Investments Office on the basis that their returns on the endowment allow low-income and first generation students to attend Yale. According to a 2018 report from CNBC, Yale grants the seventh most financial aid of all American universities, with the average out-of-pocket cost per student at less than $17,000.
While acknowledging that Yale students are “smart” and “compassionate,” the author of the piece defended the Investments Office.
“When liberal students en masse wrongly attack the single most progressive investment model used by universities across the country, then they deserve to be called out,” he wrote. “If it weren’t for Chief Investment Officer David Swensen’s endowment strategy, I and many other low-income students across the world could never have even dreamed of coming to a place like Yale.”
I cannot help but wonder if there is a middle ground in the argument. That there is some compromise allowing the Investments Office to supplement Yale with funds to do great things and break barriers for low-income students, while also convincing students they are acting ethically. As Swensen wrote in a piece published by the News, “If the reporter does not understand something, the reporter should not write about it.” Without any passive aggression, I will genuinely take that advice and not speculate what this compromise could look like.
Thoughts: The Future of Our Environment
There are also clear signs that everything will improve. America is late to the party, but the rest of the world has begun to take substantial and tangible measures to combat climate change. Some are done in policy, including the Paris Accord, which the U.S. abruptly left in 2017. Some are done popularly; Pew Research released a poll of 26 countries, finding that climate change is seen as the greatest global security threat. Some actions are taken by children, who cut school, flood the streets and demand that their school, government, continent and globe take heed of a problem that will disproportionately affect young people.
Some actions are more obscure than a global protest. The appointment of environmental economist Kristalina Georgieva as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund is a positive step for environmental justice, according to Eric LeCompte, the Executive Director of the nonprofit alliance Jubilee USA Network, which focuses on global poverty and inequality.
“Under Georgieva’s leadership, we will see emphasis on gender inequality, environmental issues and the need for more resources to be directed to the developing world,” LeCompte said. “She is the first IMF chief who comes from an emerging market country.”
While I hope I have made convincing points, I am nevertheless not conceited enough to assume my logic is right, let alone flawless, as I wish it were. If you have genuine thoughts, lead me in the right direction.
I must conclude then, with the importance of protest and peaceful assembly. It is one of the foremost rights on which our country was founded and with which we were endowed, and for good reason.
The greatest issue in striving for change is complacency. And I am proud to be at a university where students fervently strive for change. Here’s to the strike, the students who decided to cut class, and to the hope that we will be the generation to save our planet.
Nick Tabio | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Sept. 27: A previous version of this article stated that the United States left the Paris Climate Accord in 2018. In fact, the U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2017.